Eater – Page 28 – Dani Valent

Eater

We’ve all got to eat so it might as well be good! I’ve been a restaurant critic for almost 20 years, and have been writing a weekly restaurant column in Melbourne’s Sunday Age since 2006.

My approach is to always take a restaurant on its own terms: there’s no point slamming a burger joint because it doesn’t have white tablecloths. I try to be constructive in my criticism and I’ve always got the diner in mind: there are many places you could choose to go. Why should it be here?

 

Trattoria Emilia

Let’s start with the gnocco fritto, because I’d love an excuse to think about them again. Not to be confused with gnocchi, these gnocco are fried bread puffs laced with pork fat, served very hot, and eaten with cured meats. You tear gnocco, stuff them with salami, prosciutto or mortadella mousse and let the fat melt in your mouth. Eating is always in the present tense but it doesn’t always seize a moment: this does.

Shanghai Street

If dumpling dogmatism delivered us from evil I’d screech and shout about them until dusk on doomsday. However, it doesn’t, so I’m not going to make a pronouncement about which of Melbourne’s dumplings is best. Rather, I’m going to celebrate the fact that we’re in any position to have hair-splitting arguments about dumplings at all. It wasn’t always so. Shanghai Street is not the newest, biggest or most photogenic purveyor of pastry packages but it’s so unrelentingly popular that there are three branches in the city (all with queue management policies) and another in Prahran.

The Graham

If expensive consultants brainstormed and blue-skied to create the perfect neighbourhood restaurant, they’d come up with something like The Graham. It’s a 19th century corner pub so it feels like it’s meant to be here. It’s contemporary too: brothers Tony and Peter Giannakis have run the place for 15 years, adjusting course as befits their changing neighbourhood and their own ideas of welcome and value. The offering is flexible. Plan restaurant lunches either discreet or rollicking. Keep it casual with steak sandwiches in the bar. Take a date for degustation dinner. Confidently book a special occasion in a private room. Whatever it is, you’re in safe hands.

Vanilla

It’s a warm spring night and Oakleigh’s Eaton Mall is pumping. Chatty lines spill from tricked-up souvlaki joints. Kids zoom around the pedestrian concourse. Teens in clean jeans preen. Toddlers coat themselves in ice cream. Hotted up hoon-mobiles prowl the cross streets. I love it all: Melbourne is a city of neighbourhoods and this Greek hub is a beauty. The biggest, shiniest entity on the strip is Vanilla, a two-level 500-seat ever-expanding megalopolis run by Helen and Arthur Spanos, their four children and their children’s partners. The food is Mediterranean with a skew to Greek and a sideline in pub classics. You can eat downstairs, outside or upstairs: expect queues for all areas. You may be approached by the restaurant’s photographer to be snapped for Vanilla’s own glossy magazine. Yes, a restaurant with on-site paparazzi and a publication arm: it’s an amazing place.

Stray Neighbour

Here’s the optimistic bar and restaurant that will unpick any lurking jibes about not-hip-enough Depreston, one pint of craft beer at a time. You could think of Stray Neighbour as a gastropub in industrial skin: there’s an astroturfed beer garden out front and the massive ex-panelbeater interior has been gently demarcated into bar, dining room and handsome saloon with pool table. Tin ceilings and factory windows could make the place cold but the heating is good and a forest mural and swooping touches of green bring warmth and whimsy.

Neon Tiger

Friends don’t tell friends to open cafes. If they held back, there’d be fewer places run by misguided souls who do great dinner parties (“This pasta is amazing, you should open a restaurant!”) but don’t have any idea how to deliver hospitality. Businesses fuelled by unfocused food dreams might be full of heart – even delicious dishes – but being in them can feel like riding a runaway train.

L’Altro Mondo

When I hear that a chef is doing Italian but with F words (fancy and fusion), I feel worried rather than excited. Italian food isn’t about tricking stuff up. It’s about channelling nonna, having a grand romance with produce and keeping it simple. But when contemporary and edgy is underpinned by respectful and authentic then I’ll stop fretting and start enjoying.

© Dani Valent 2021